Karen Brodkin

Karen Brodkin, anthropologist, is part of a historic transformation of anthropological practice. She, along with a cohort of other female anthropologists, brought the insights of the women’s movement into the classrooms and lecture halls of the university.  Building from political study circles and action groups she was among a generation who understood that commitment was more than a word, it was an act.

My first encounter with Karen Brodkin was through chapter, “Engels Revisited” published in the celebrated book, Women Culture and Societyabout fifteen years after it was written. By the time I was reading Brodkin’s work as an undergrad the terrain of anthropological research had already been transformed. However, the intense political struggles that Brodkin and her colleagues had been engaged in had been sidelined in the mainstream discipline by an easier textual struggle in which how one wrote was considered as (if not more) important than what one wrote.  For those of us coming from working class and colonized social worlds, however, we found inspiration in the writing of people like Brodkin.

I have found two articles of particular help in my own thinking about doing anthropology that pays attention to social class. Toward a Unified Theory of Class, Race, and Gender (AE 1989) is a clear statement of Brodkin’s socialist feminism.  This paper helps us think through the ways in which social class is not innocent of social categories like race and gender, but how those concepts are integral to making sense of class. Her paper Women, Work, and Karl Marx (AWR 1998) provides a critical overview of how an earlier anthropology of women and work “helped develop a coherent research agenda within anthropology: it attends to the ways and sites at which people resist global capitalism, to what works and what does not, the relationship between the cultural constructions of identity and how, when and in what ways they do and do not work for mobilizing social change.”

Early in my appointment at UBC I was able to get funding for a research conference that allowed me to bring in a host of academics that I admired.  Karen Brodkin was on that list. Other well established progressive scholars also invited included: Gerald Sider, Gavin Smith, Brigit O’Laughlin, and Deborah Fink.  It was a three day event in which all we did was talk about issues of gender, race and their intersection with social class.

For close to four decades Karen Brodkin combined community-centered social activism with exemplary scholarship that highlighted women, work, and the possibilities of a better world. During the decades of navel gazing scholar-activists like Brodkin kept the pressure on.  Today, as we turn back toward engaged scholarship, Brodkin’s work is even more important then when she wrote it.


Some Other Online Sources

An interview with the Savageminds Blog. 

Finding aid for some of Karen Brodkin’s research materials

Oral history interview with Karen Brodkin (click and scroll to the bottom of the list)


Books by Karen Brodkin

2009: Power Politics: Environmentalism in South Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press (Youtube video of book talk)

2007: Making Democracy Matter: Identity and Activism in Los Angeles. Rutgers University Press.

1998: How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America. Rutgers University Press. (Honorable Mention, 1999 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award).

1988 Caring By The Hour: Women, Work And Organizing At Duke MedicalCenter. University of Illinois Press(Conrad Arensberg Award, Society for the Anthropology of Work and Honorable Mention Staley Prize in Anthropology)

1984 My Troubles Are Going To Have Trouble With Me. co edited with D. Remy.New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

1979 Sisters And Wives: The Past And Future Of Sexual Equality. Westport: Greenwood


An Indigenous Guide to Respectful Research

The following is a draft introduction to a book that I am currently working on. Comments appreciated.


Respectful research involves more than a good methodology and a pleasant demeanour. I think of respect in that sense where by one refrains from violating, harassing, or obstructing. Put in an affirmative light it is to treat with consideration. Ultimately respect, as an active process, means to value. In terms of research respect leads us to place value in the integrity of our process, to honour and not cause harm to those with whom are research involves, and to be honest with our intentions.

This book is an Indigenous guide to respectful research. My examples are drawn from my own research within, and in collaboration with members of, my home community of Gitxaała. That this book is based upon an Indigenous experience with research in no way should be understood to restrict the utility of respectful research only to Indigenous settings. In fact, I am certain that I am not alone in advocating respectful research across the domains of social science research. As an Indigenous anthropologist my emphasis may well place more attention on ensuring community engagement than might normally be anticipated. That being said, this is also the way in which my ongoing research in western Europe is also conducted (Menzies 2011).

Social science researchers have long been concerned with research methodology. This concern originally was restricted to ensure appropriate and robust methodologies (Boas 1920; Malinowski 1922). Only late in the history of social science research did matters of the ethnical treatment of research participants become part of the discourse. The implications of Nazi experiments on unwilling prisoners during World War II and the horror felt once the full enormity of their actions where revealed created the conditions for more humane and ethical treatment of human research subjects. Sadly, the atrocities committed by the Nazis were not unique examples of political authorities conducting medical and psychological experiments upon unwilling subjects.

Canada’s own history of residential schooling includes the same type of cruel and inhumane medical experiments being carried out on young children. While the oral history of residential schools has consistently documented wide ranging and systemic physical and sexual abuse recent historical research indicates that government sanctioned medical experiments were also being conducted on aboriginal children who had been forcibly removed from their homes and placed into residential schools run by Christian church authorities (Mosby 2013). Medical research into nutritional supplements was conducted in the 1940s and 1950s by researchers who appear to have had little regard for the individuals they were experimenting upon. Even with awareness of the Nazi medical experiments this type of research increased, rather than decreased, following World War II (Mosby 2013:166).

Continue reading pdf of full Introduction here.


Leslie Robertson

Leslie Robertson is a colleague of mine at UBC.  Our paths have crossed many times over the years  and our scholarly histories share many points of similarities.  We both did an undergraduate degree in the sociology and anthropology department at Simon Fraser University (though we didn’t cross paths there, I finished in 1988 and she started in 1991), we both did our MA’s at a Canadian university (Leslie at Calgary, I at York), and our doctoral research shared a common concern with history and memory in resource dependent towns (Leslie in the mining town of Fernie, BC and I with the fishing town of Le Guilvinec, Brittany). Leslie was working on her PhD at UBC when I was hired here at UBC in 1996. Today we sit together on supervisory committees of a new crop of graduate students.

We also share an interest in the intersection of Indigenous and colonial worlds. We approach these topics from slightly different vantage points, but we are getting at and to the same concerns. We share a strong commitment to respectful, collaborative community-centered, social justice research.  Leslie spent several years engaged in collaborative community-centered research in the Downtown East Side (DTES)  of Vancouver prior to joining UBC’s faculty. I was involved in a year long pre-Expo ’86 housing survey led by the late Jim Green.  We both share a commitment to this kind of engaged activist research.  As  an institution our department at UBC values this kind of work;  people like Leslie make it a reality. Together we are participants  in the co-creation of a respectful anthropological practice.

Leslie Robertson’s approach to anthropological work with Indigenous and marginal communities sets a standard well worth paying attention to.   In the opening section of Stand up with Gaaxstalas Leslie lays out in detail the ways in which her collaboration with the family of Gaaxstalas/Jane Cook is more than lip service.  This is an exemplary practice. The entire book, but especially the open segments should be read by all students of anthropology. Our discipline would be transformed if we all engaged our interlocutors in this fashion.

Standing up with Gaaxstalas is more than an anthropological life history.  In fact it is a transformative work that shifts the notion of the anthropological scribe editing and organizing the life history of a typical anthropological subject toward a formally and authentically collaborative work.  The author is Leslie but the process involves an active collective voice. We are given a description of the back and forth, the discussion, the consideration, and the careful long term work over a decade (if not longer) that has resulted in this book.  This is an explication that is often ignored or relegated to conversations outside of formal text. This is the kind of book that I as an Indigenous scholar would seek to author and strongly endorse others doing the same.

In my paper Oil, Energy, and Anthropology, I discuss the history of collaboration on the NWC focussing on my own part of the world: the north coast of BC. Had my gaze expanded coast wide Leslie’s work would have figured prominently as a path forward in the co-creation of a respectful de-colonized anthropological practice.